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First Impressions

I got into teaching English for a purely selfish reason: I wanted to travel and learn about other languages and cultures. LIttle did I know that I would love teaching and that the career would suck me in. Ten years have passed since I bought a one-way ticket to Colombia, and China will be my sixth country to teach in. China was never really that high on my list, it wasn’t somewhere that I was aching to live. Maybe it was the fear of tackling the language or the idea that there would be no way for me to catch up on learning about 2000 years of history, but I never really considered moving here. Josephine, on the other hand, had put China at the top of her list for precisely the reasons I had feared. She said that whenever she pictured a place that could be as far away from her home as possible, China was what came to mind.

After a week here, I’m questioning why I would have ever debated the move. Granted, I’ve been reduced to zero, linguistically and culturally. I have absolutely no language skills here, so I’ve had to rely on pantomime and pictures. Thankfully, a little effort with the language and being polite seems to go a long way. For most every little improvement I make, I get tons of praise. While research suggests that praising students too much is counter-productive because it leads them to either expect recognition for any effort and because it desensitizes them, I have been loving the support that I get whenever I try to use the language!  In my case, it’s made me want to try harder to speak to Chinese people in their own language. Also, I realize how tough it is for so many people to use their limited English with me, so I want to meet them halfway. Plus, people have been so polite to me (except on the subway, where it’s everyone for himself or herself).

Asians in the US and France get  caricatures on their cups, the American in China gets a respectful form of address.

Asians in the US and France get caricatures on their cups, the American in China gets a respectful form of address.

Speaking of the politeness, I was struck by what a Starbucks barista wrote on my cup the other day, rather than asking my name. In case any of you hadn’t heard the news last year, there were a round of articles on racist Starbucks coffee cups, Papa John’s receipts, and other such nonsense going around last year when employees didn’t have the time to ask for customers’ names. My cup had none of that, it was labeled “Sir.” And, yes, for my Austin friends and my midtown Memphis friends, I went into a Starbucks!. You can throw me out of the club now, but when the choice is instant coffee, or some mediocre stuff from the local quickie mart, I’ll take Starbucks in the land of tea.

Food has been the greatest surprise. A number of people told me they began to hate Chinese food after trip here, and a number of traveling English teachers told me that no Chinese food in the US ever compared to the quality of what they have gotten here. I fall in the latter group. Oh my God, I love the food here! Granted, I have made it a point not to ask what I am eating until after I’ve finished. It’s easier for me to eat some things if I don’t know what they are, like pork lungs. All in all, it hasn’t lived up to the stereotypes I’ve had (this has been the same anywhere, which leads me to question why I would believe anything about anywhere until I visit.) What’s struck me to date is how fresh the food is, and how diverse everything is. Each group meal has been a symphony of tastes, colors, textures, and styles. Luckily, my new boss is a foodie who fills his WeChat page with pictures of food. After every meeting or school visit, we have the obligatory fancy lunch

My first workshop. The 14 teachers here work with 3000 students!

My first workshop. The 14 teachers here work with 3000 students!

On the work front, all is well. I’m working for a university, doing a project that has me visiting primary schools to give workshops to English teachers.  The first one went over well, and I’m scheduled for 3 more next week after we get back from the Chinese national day holiday. I’ll write more about these later.


China Bound

Stefan's ready for China

Stefan’s ready for China

After taking a six-month vacation to enjoy the newest edition to our family, I’ve been lucky enough to get a position in Guangzhou, China as a Senior English Language Fellow with the EL Fellow Program, a program that is funded by the Department of State and run by Georgetown. It promotes English language learning but placing educators like myself in different institutions in over 50 countries around the world.

With so many possibilities, Josephine and I decided that we would let fate decide our destiny, and when I applied, we said that we’d go anywhere… Well, “anywhere” with a few exceptions. We didn’t want to return to the Gulf, since we had just come from there, and I wasn’t particularly interested in going to Russia. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the cold winters. Anyhow, as it turns out, we got my wife’s number one pick, China. Thankfully, it wasn’t the ELF posting in Changchun, which is up in the Northeastern part of the country near North Korea; I just couldn’t handle the weather up there. Instead, we got assigned to a city right on the Tropic of Cancer with weather more appropriate for a couple who had just returned from Saudi Arabia.

Guangzhou is in the South, a couple hours away from Hong Kong, and we accepted the position as soon as it was offered, without knowing anything about the city. I must confess my ignorance. I had never heard of Guangzhou, though I had heard of it as Canton, so I guess I was only half ignorant. Seeing as it is the 3rd largest city in China and over 12 million people live there, there’s an awful lot of people who have heard of it.

I’m starting a 30 hour journey to get there tomorrow, and hopefully my wife and son, Josephine and Stefan, will be joining me in just a few weeks. I don’t like the idea of traveling without them, but visa issues trump personal wants and needs.  In the meantime, I’ll be starting my job with South China Normal University, where I will be helping to train K-12 English teachers around the Guangdong Province. I’ll be blogging here to share my experiences teaching, eating, and struggling with Cantonese and Mandarin.